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A federal judge has rejected efforts by a Canadian smelter to drag other companies into a legal fight over Columbia River pollution, paving the way for a trial in September and potentially saving the state or U.S. government from having to pay to clean up the mess, Washington state officials said Monday.
The ruling last week marks the latest step in a long-running dispute over a buildup of heavy metals in sediment behind north-central Washington's Grand Coulee Dam. Cleaning up the contamination has been estimated at as much as $1 billion.
Teck Cominco Metals Ltd., operators of a lead and zinc smelter in Trail, British Columbia, had argued it should only be responsible for part of the cleanup, contending that other unidentified polluters should also contribute.
U.S. District Judge Lonny R. Suko ruled Wednesday that the company should pay for the cleanup if found liable for the pollution. A trial on that question is scheduled to begin Sept. 10 in Yakima.
Teck Cominco could still file claims against other companies to help pay for cleanup, Assistant Attorney General Kelly Wood said, but the government now won't have to "eat that cost" if those other companies are no longer operating or viable.
Teck Cominco is aware of the ruling and reviewing it with legal counsel, according to Marcia Smith, the company's senior vice president for sustainability and external affairs.
"It is important to note that these proceedings are still at an early stage," Smith said in an email. "Further, despite these rulings, we are encouraged by the results of our ongoing studies into environmental conditions in the Upper Columbia River."
Teck Cominco is one of Canada's largest mining companies, and its lead-zinc smelter 10 miles north of the U.S. border is among the largest of its kind in the world. However, state and federal authorities contend the company and its predecessors discharged mining waste into the river for decades.
That waste then flowed into Washington, causing significant heavy metal contamination in Lake Roosevelt, a 150-mile stretch of the Columbia River from Grand Coulee Dam to the Canadian border.
A decade ago, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess contamination in the reservoir. In 2003, the EPA decided that Teck Cominco was subject to the U.S. Superfund law, because releases from the smelter had traveled down the river into the United States. The agency demanded the company pay for studies to determine the extent of the contamination, and then clean it up.
The tribes filed suit in 2004, and the state joined the lawsuit as an intervener.
The case has proven to be both costly and contentious. In 2009, a federal judge ordered Teck Cominco to reimburse the Colvilles for more than $1 million the tribes' had spent on the case over five years. The company also has appealed some rulings in the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The latest ruling is welcome news for the tribes, Colville Business Council Chairman Michael Finley said in a statement.
Doug Seymour, chairman of the tribes' Natural Resources Committee, noted that the Columbia River has always been central to the tribes' way of life, culture and survival.
"I look forward to a cleanup of the river that has been so important to the Colville Tribes for thousands of years," he said, "and to righting the environmental wrongs that we have suffered as a Nation."
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